The Wayward Long-Billed Curlew
Updated: Apr 11
Long-billed Curlews are the largest shorebirds in North America. They are easily recognizable by their size and their crazy downturned bill, which they use to probe mudflats for insects. They look like coastal birds, and they do prefer wet, warm places in the winter. But they shift to a grassland lifestyle during the summer, dining on grasshoppers and bird eggs.
Long-billed Curlews breed during the late spring and early summer in the Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest, but then generally return to the Texas coast and Mexico for the winter. During migration, some Long-billed Curlews stop over in the Texas Panhandle. It is not uncommon to see several dozen of them at McGee Lake in northeast Amarillo in the fall. But like many other bird species, their numbers are declining in a worrisome way.
Because I have seen these birds somewhat frequently every year since I've been bird-watching, it was shocking to realize that they are such a vulnerable species. "These birds once ranged throughout the Atlantic Coast of North America during the winter, in flocks of thousands," according to Autumn-Lynn Harrison, a researcher with the Migratory Connectivity Project of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. "Breeding surveys of remaining populations have shown declining trends in the Great Plains shortgrass prairies where they mate in summer. Their habitats are being converted to intensive agricultural use and suburban development."
To try to prevent further loss of the species, researchers in North and South Dakota attached very lightweight satellite transmitters to nine Long-Billed Curlews in spring 2022 to increase their knowledge about how these birds are using breeding habitat and key landscape features, migration, and wintering areas.
Beginning in July 2022, those nine birds started migrating south, where they were expected to wind up along the Texas coast or in Mexico. But as you can see, one bird got sidetracked in the Panhandle of Texas. That light yellow line represents "Bull 1", a female Long-Billed Curlew who made some new friends and has been hanging out in Randall County, a few miles south of Canyon, for the past two months.
On September 23, 2022, I was contacted by Dr. Kevin Ellison of the American Bird Conservancy, who is in charge of the curlew tagging program. He requested that I investigate the spot where Bull 1 had been residing to see if there were other curlews there and what the attraction was for that bird to remain in our area instead of completing her migration.
Feeling like quite the birding detective, I drove out I-27 to Western Street (a dirt road at that point), between Hungate Road and Lawrence Road in southern Randall County on September 26. Driving slowly and scanning all of the agricultural fields and dry playas in the area, I eventually saw some large bird heads sticking up in the distance above the tall grass.
Luckily, I had come upon a flock of curlews feeding on the black grama grassland. They were located in one of the spots to which Kevin had tracked Bull 1 via satellite. I couldn't distinguish a specific bird with a transmitter, nor could I see the legs well enough to spot a green band. But Kevin had assured me that Bull 1 was in that large field regularly, so I knew that I had found where and with whom our visitor from the Dakotas has made her home for the last couple of months.
When the flock was buzzed by a Swainson's Hawk, I was able to count 17 Long-billed Curlews in flight. I reported my findings back to Dr. Ellison and he was glad to know that Bull 1 was in a suitable place for the time being.
He has promised to keep me posted if Bull 1 moves or leaves the area for good. I assured him that I would look for her regularly. I am hoping for a warm fall so maybe she will hang out here awhile longer. Local birders who spot any Long-billed Curlews in the Texas Panhandle should report them to eBird so that there is a record of how many are migrating through or staying. The same lessons that Dr. Ellison and his team are learning about habitat and land management on the Northern Great Plains in their multi-year study of Long-billed Curlews will be applicable to the Texas Panhandle, so that we too can make efforts to protect this striking shorebird species.
Update: As of November 2, 2022, Bull 1 was still residing in the same area of southern Randall County. I spotted her that afternoon with three other Long-billed Curlews, feeding along the banks of a playa lake southeast of the intersection of Hungate Road and Interstate 27. I was able to grab a few pictures and was delighted to see that Bull 1's green leg band and transmitter on her back were visible. Dr. Ellison was grateful to see one of "his" curlews looking healthy and in the company of friends.
Here is an updated story about the curlews from the American Bird Conservancy.
Update 4-10-23: Bull 1 spent the entire winter in the Texas Panhandle, never migrating south to lay on a sunny beach, sipping drinks garnished with tiny umbrellas. During the winter of 2022-2023, she survived intense wind storms, bitter cold snaps, and drought that dried up many of her favorite playas in our area. Peggy Trosper and I spotted her flying one more time in southern Randall County in January 2023 with four fellow curlews.
When migration north began in March 2023, we expected to see GPS tracking to show that she was heading back to where she was tagged. However, she was still hanging around in the same agricultural areas just south of Canyon, Texas, when on April 7, 2023, her transmitter signaled her mortality. Dr. Ellison said in an email to me, "All we know is that there was a big change in motion detected by the tag’s accelerometer. This would be in fitting with something happening to the bird while in flight--like getting struck by a bird of prey, hitting something like a wire, getting shot, or some extreme wind shear." His best guess was that she was taken out by a falcon.
I understand the cycle of life, but this event made me very sad. Bull 1 had become a bird "friend" and I was rooting not only for her to survive a harsh Texas Panhandle winter, but to thrive and create the next generation of little curlews in South Dakota in the summer of 2023.